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Backpacking a Remote small Creek in search of Native Trout
Canyoneering Trout Bumming

Because I had to feed my Trout Bumming addiction on a game wardens budget I did allot of this kind of fishing on my days off. This and rental car Trout Bumming fit me just perfect and I often combined them. I simply love dropping into deep remote canyons and exploring them for a few days but I realize this style of Trout Bumming is not for everyone.

This information applies to the southwest and specifically Arizona, Southwest Utah and Western New Mexico because of the numerous unique canyons housing wild trout. Sometimes only a small portion of a canyon may contain fish. Most of these drainage’s were stocked after World War Two, so a wild strain of fish have been in them for a long time.

Wherever you live in the USA you may find my backpacking systems/fishing methods useful and can apply them in your local. Or maybe someday you may plan a Trout Bumming adventure into one of these areas.

Most of the creeks that hold wild populations of fish require backpacking trips into remote canyons.  A canyon's beauty itself has always been enough to draw me into searching out new locations. Below is an overview of what I do when pursuing wild trout or other warm water fish in remote canyons. It is not the only way. I'm sure there are others out there that have perfected it even more. My system has evolved into a super simple, lightweight method over the years and may not work for everyone. 

For more information on choosing canyons, click here.

Trout Bumming



Can you find the two 13 inch rainbows in this remote canyon creek? Always study a pool first, before planning the best approach.

The most common question we have received, is to be more specific about remote creeks locations, holding wild trout/fish populations.  I'll answer this one right up front and say....sorry we are not going to specific.  I have already listed how to find information on such locations and posted a few.   Others I have not even posted because of their sensitivity. I can recommend if one does not want to search out areas, purchase a book, Arizona Flyfisher's Guide by Will Jordan. Will, actually mentions a couple of creeks I wish he had not, but kept quite about so many others thankfully. His book is a good starting place for those new to the West or this kind of crazy pursuit.

 

Fish



16" Chub

It seems most people want to pursue wild trout. But I equally enjoy canyons that hold warm water fish such as bass, sunfish, carp, natives and catfish. Much of my pursuit in Arizona is during the fall, winter and spring, so I choose lower elevations usually 6000' or less during these times. 

How Did Fish Get There


Yes, there are wild populations of brook trout in AZ, Remote Creek Central AZ

During the wet years of the 1980's many wildlife departments inventoried man made stock tanks around their states that could sustain warm/cold water fish.  They were consequently stocked and many still remain, incredible small fisheries. These stocking records are still available to those interested in pursuing them.  


 

Sunfish occupy many remote warm water creeks throughout the west. You will always find them in pools, rather then moving water and most dry flies work, even a big ugly one, such as the one here. 
 Consider checking out deep and reliable stock tanks around AZ for fishing. When these stock tanks flood they push fish into canyons downstream. Thus the reason for fish species being found in many of the canyons listed.  The same applies to trout lakes at higher elevations, again washing trout into canyons below dams. This is also the reason why stocking is no longer done in many locations. The USFWS has concerns over this impacting native fish populations downstream. Another way fish make it into these canyon creeks, is ranchers upstream typically stock personal fishing ponds at their ranches and again they find their way downstream during wet years. One example of such a drainage near Phoenix, AZ is the upper reaches of New River. Several large pools exist containing sunfish.


Respect private property rights

 

Native species


Some creeks have wild trout as well as native chubs.

A few creeks and rivers have native species within them. Many are closed to fishing and others are mixed in with non native fish. They may be caught accidentally so be sure to release them unharmed immediately. Some rivers and creeks are open to fishing these gems such as Fossil Creek in Arizona. Again check regulations. 

Fish Size


Largemouth Bass


Most small streams mean that the fish will be small in size, although this is not always the case. In small trout streams a big one is 10 inches. Average are 6 to 8 inches. The same usually goes for bass, around 10 inches. The only place this does not hold true is with carp and brown trout. They can grow big in deeper holes.


Bigger brown trout usually inhabit the best places in a pool. Try there first.

Once the creek gets wide and deeper the fish size goes up. There was a time when big brown trout captured my attention but today I'm just as content catching smaller fish and that usually translates into more fish. So I typically target these smaller streams knowing I will be catching smaller fish. Your interest may be different. 

Regulations 

Remember to carry your fishing license with you. You might be saying to yourself no one will ever check me in such a remote canyon. You never know.  People were always surprised when I contacted them in remote areas over the years, so carry a fishing license. 

Several of the rainbow trout streams I fished many years ago have changed regulations. The rainbows have been killed and the creek restocked with native trout. During initial restocking they are typically closed to fishing until they can sustain such pressure. When researching a remote stream, check the regs first. 

Equipment 


Screw in cleats aid with traction when walking in slippery creeks. Unless the water is super cold I normally don't use waders. Instead quick drying pants and possibly a second lightweight pair of sandals work well.

Fishing Equipment

My system has evolved through the years and today is very simple and light. I've learned what works and what doesn't and carry with me a small assortment of the working stuff.

My fishing systems are divided into 3 different tackle arrangements.

  • Small trout (below 12")
  • Medium trout (above 12 ") rainbows & browns, 3 weight 4 piece Sage rod
  • Warm water fish
  • Large brown trout.
  • Time of year may dictate patterns or if crayfish are present

Each is divided into plastic zip lock bags and I simply pack the one needed for the planned trip. Sometimes I carry both spin and fly equipment, but only one rod. That rod will be my TFO 1 weight with 6 small zip ties. I use two zip ties to fasten the spinning reel to the cork handle of the fly rod. This actually works good for me and I can switch back and forth between fly or spin as needed.

    

Tenkara rods (Japanese fly rods) work well for this kind of canyoneering fly fishing. They are very lightweight and fun to fish with. I like TFO's Cutthroat model for small creeks, shown above.

The fly fishing industry have done a very good job of marketing their products and convincing customers they "must have" lots of equipment to ever begin to catch fish. On top of that, good fly fishing equipment is expensive. I too fell into the "got to have all the latest greatest gear" years ago. Now much of this equipment sits most of the time, except when I use it to teach others fly fishing.  In reality, all one needs is a decent rod/reel, some inexpensive fly line and a few pieces of gear. I say inexpensive fly line because most of your casts will not be long, as many of these locations are very brushy and chocked with rocks. A cheap weight forward floating line will do. Also important are good tactics and knowledge. By simply reading one can become educated and over time, the experiences gained will make you a better fisherman. 


Waterfall pools are usually deep and hold bigger fish. Try dangling a callibaetis nymph imitation slowly into the pool from above and don't fall in when you get a bite. Have a plan on how to quickly get to your fish after playing it.  

When venturing into remote canyons in search of  fish I pack lightly.  My trips are usually an overnight or two because most of these locations require miles of off trail hiking.  Sometimes more.  Create your own gear list with the style of fishing you enjoy.  I enjoy flyfishing the most but sometimes leave the fly rod at home and choose a spinning outfit for specific locations.

Wading

My wading equipment will probably be different then most as I rarely fish remote creeks during summers. During summer, things are easy because its warm enough to wade and swim deep pools. All one needs is their air sleeping mattress to place packs on, for swimming deep, steep pools. Once done strap it to the outside of your pack for complete drying. I always use a trash compactor bag to line the inside of my pack. They are light, tough and protect contents from rain/snow and wading accidents. Rainproof pack covers never have worked well for me. 
During the winter things become more challenging. Below are a few ways I deal with cold weather, winter wading. Carry an extra pair of light wading shoes and change into them for wading, thus keeping a pair of shoes dry. I like using surfing socks because they are tough,warm and comfortable.



Supai Backpacking Lightweight Raft

Target stores offer umbrella plastic bags for their customers. They are used to place dripping umbrellas in. I wear them outside my socks, then inside shoes. They are fairly tall and can be secured with a rubber band around ones leg to hold them up. 
As evening sets in and if your feet and pants are wet, find a camping spot early. Start a fire to dry clothes. I usually wear my sleeping clothes, silk long underwear with rain pants and merino wool socks, while they are drying. As a last resort Ill carry waders. I use an old pair with just the legs that I have cut off, or choose an inexpensive pair of Orvis lightweight waders.
If I know I will be encountering deep pools that must be swam I will use a lightweight Supai inflatable backpacking raft. I never carry a paddle but find a pole or 1/2 piece of rotting log, that I use as a paddle. Everything including myself is placed in the raft. If you are crazy enough to fish during cold periods, be careful

Flyfishing System

For Arizona’s small fish I use a TFO 6' 9", four piece one weight fly rod   This rod goes into a short florescent light holder for bushwhacking protection although I have still broken it twice. My current reel is a TFO BVK 0 fly reel, loaded with a cut down two weight, dry fly line.

In a small zip lock bag I carry the below equipment as well as the reel. Some of this equipment goes into shirt pockets once I get to a bottom of a canyon or to flowing water.

 

 

 

  • Gink fly floatant is placed in a smaller ultralight bottle. 
  • Small fishing forceps with built-in scissors. clipped to shirt.
  • 1 Foam fly boxes with magnets removed and rubber band for closing. 
  • I have my favorite flies that cover most situations.  If I had to choose only one fly it would be a parachute Adams for small trout.  
  • 1 extra leader
  • 1 extra tippet spool 5x or 4x
  • 2 strike indicators, many times a larger dry fly
  • 1 wool dry fly patch usually placed on pack or shirt.
  • I do not use a fishing vest or pouch for this kind of fishing, Instead I find the Simms older style Guide LS shirt works perfect for this on the move creek backpacking fishing.  This shirt acts as a vest with the four monster pockets. I can carry needed flyfishing supplies in them and it keeps my weight down. As you can see there is no dress or accouterments flyfishing statement made with this kind of fishing. On the San Juan or Big Horn rivers you would be frowned upon.
  • I do not use a net except for when targeting bigger brown trout. On creeks that hold larger brown trout I will move up to a 6weight with 3x leader/tippet.  Much of this kind of fly fishing for me is done after midnight anyway. My brown trout flies and tactics I have always kept a secret.

 

Spinning Outfit


If I know I will only need spinning equipment for my trip I use a telescoping rod that fits easily into a pack. I've tried many telescoping rods and like the Shakespeare Travel Mate in the 4' 6" size. This is a bait casting rod so I grind the finger hook off. For a reel I usually take a Diowa Underspin 40XD although I have others. The weight of a XD reel is 5 oz. These are not the smoothest reels in the world but I'm not plastic worm fishing on either. These little reels I load with spider wire line in 4 or 6 lb test. Always remove the prespooled line they come with because its usually poor quality and old. Years past I always used open face spinning reels, but for backpacking I find they were constantly unwinding line. Underspins protect this line within packs as well as my hard on equipment treatment.

All my lures and equipment go into a double sided small Plano box. Below is what I currently carry.

  • 4 size 12 and 14 hooks
  • 2 extra treble hooks 
  • 4 small split shot
  • 4 swivels
  • 6 zip ties
  • Mepps type spinners
  • Small twister tail grubs with weighted hooks
  • Extra twister grubs & weighted hooks
  • 2 small floating lures
  • 2 small minnow lures
  • 1 clear bobber
  • 1 regular bobber
  • This box weighs 4.2 ounces.

 

 

Backpacking gear

I subscribe to modern day ultralight backpacking principles. My gear is very specialized as well as homemade and today there are many cottage companies producing such equipment. Gone are the days when I carried 50 to 60 pound packs into the wild. I simply adapt current ultralight systems to my form of canyoneering and fishing.  My pack and overnight base weight is 8.5 pounds. This includes the pack, tent, sleeping system, cook kitchen, personal hygiene, first aid, down jacket, phone or gps, rain gear and safety/emergency supplies.  The only thing not included is food, water and alcohol stove fuel. The fishing system noted above may change.  I commonly treat water in these locations since it is plenty full and calculate how much I will need to get into these canyons. Food usually adds 1.5 to 2 pounds per day depending how strenuous the activity will be.  As you can see everything is very light thus allowing me to move fast and comfortable.

 

Packs


  • Zpacks Arc Haul
  • Osprey Exos
  • Badlands Hypervent
  • Older REI Flash

 

Tents


One person cuben fiber tent. Enough room for one person, gear and a dog. Tent is tied upward to a tree limb. Tent weight 8oz. 
 

Sometimes I don't carry a tent and only a bivy to save weight if I know its not going to rain or snow, or if bugs or critters will not be a problem. I use tent tarps that do not have a built in floor. Instead I create my own light weight floor from Polycryo. The three tents I have settled on are:

  • Oware Drawcord Bivysack 6 oz. Has a built in bugnet
  • Oware sil nylon 9x9 Pyramid Tent, room for two people and gear... 21 oz
  • Bear Paw Designs cuben fiber Lair one person tarp tent... 8 oz, room for me, dog and gear
  • Pyranet 1 cuben fiber bath tub bug net tent. Will fit under either tent if the bugs are bad or can be used by itself. 8 oz. Only room for 1 person
  • Big Agnes Scout Plus UL2

Note: These tents do not use poles, but instead utilize hiking sticks which I rely on to get me in and out of canyons. A wooden stick can also be used or tied upward to a tree limb.


You can also use an off road vehicle to get you close to the canyon side walls, set up a base camp there and use daylight to access a specific part of the canyon. One can quickly pull camp, move to another area, set up a base camp again and do the same thing over and over. This can work good if you don't want to sleep in the bottoms of deep canyons.

Sleeping systems

I don't use a sleeping bag unless its below freezing, but instead prefer a down quilt. I have experimented with hammocks but they can be cold sleeping in cooler temps.

  • Gossamer Gear Thinlite pad 8 oz.... or a Therm-a-rest Neo air mattress 12 oz
  • Hammock Gear Burrow 40 quilt. 17 oz
  • Western Mountaineering 20 degree down sleeping bag, 1 pound 13 oz. Used during below freezing temps
  • Goosefeet Down Booties 2 oz

Note...I use the same sleeping/ tent systems for camping from a motorcycle, ATV or backpacking. 

Locating Possible Fishing Locations

I've mentioned before how to locate possible fishable canyons. Look over maps, possible routes in and out, stable springs and use Google Earth to evaluate them. Evaluate old records and ask questions. Look for large upstream water catchments. 

Getting There

 

Next decide the best method to get you close for hiking. This could involve an ATV, 4x4 vehicle, motorcycle, horse or mule. Ask a friend to join you and plan the rest of the trip. You may find you were wrong or maybe find a real hot spot! 

Tactics

 

Small creek fishing is very simple. Most Arizona small creek fish live in pools. I hike until I reach potential pools and take a moment to watch the pool for rises or look for fish on the bottom. Once located the first cast is usually the most important one, so I try and get it right. With large trout this is critical. With smaller fish not so much and most are eager to take a fly. With small fish, fly selection is usually not as important unless there is a hatch going on. At first they will take anything but once released they run back to their friends and spread the word fast and the bite quickly dies. Just kidding but it sure seems like it. If you cant see any fish or activity, bigger fish usually occupy the best spots within a pool. Try there first. 

My small creek casting tactics would probably be frowned upon by the National Federation of Flyfishers. It is pretty much what ever works to get the fly out there. Two casts I often use are the bow and arrow cast and roll cast. Of course if there is room traditional casting. But often climbing rock ledges and carefully dropping flies below into good areas, works great. Once a pool shuts down which is usually less than 5 minutes, I move on to the next pool. Eddies, beaver dams, creek turns can have areas of water that is not moving, where fish may be also. Remember fish don't want to work real hard and will choose the easiest places to make a living. Usually a pool where they do not have to constantly expend energy. Each stream has its own character and uniqueness.  Unless the pool is very large or I'm going to take a break I leave my pack on and fish.

 

Plan on getting your feet wet. I normally do not carry waders with me. I cross where its safe to do so and wade in cold water. Many times this may mean partially climbing out of the canyon to continue upstream. Oh that's right I usually fish up stream. Sometimes a route in does not allow this though.  In creeks that have slippery bottoms I use screw in cleats to aid in walking. Carry extra socks to change into later. You may choose a lightweight river shoe for walking in water. I also like surfer neoprene booties. Another thing that works is the next time you are in a Target store, take a few umbrella plastic bags that they place out front, for customers to place their leaky umbrellas in. These fit feet perfectly and are tall. These actually work pretty good when wearing them outside your socks, inside shoes and a rubber band around the upper leg will hold them up.


 
Be sneaky when moving up on a pool. Use a tree for cover.

Safety


Canyon Rescue

Always tell someone where you are going and when you plan on returning. Consider using a Spot rescue receiver. Never venture into canyons during monsoon or spring snow melt. Consider debarbing all your hooks for yourself not only the fish and I speak from experience here. Don't take unnecessary risks and be more careful . Where you enter the canyon bottom, mark this area well with something you will recognize when its time to exit. Use a GPS or smart phone back country app to track your self so you don't become lost. Carry an extra battery for this. There are some areas where wild trout populations reside, such as in the Sierra Ancha mountain range, that also have hi bear density populations. Practice bear safety rules and further wash up as good as you can each night before bed, thus removing fish smell from your hands. Consider carrying bear spray. Never sleep overnight in canyon bottoms, instead sleep above the canyon. You will stay warmer this way as well as safe. 



Bear Scat

Applying Canyoneering Fishing Elsewhere


Wild brook trout from high in the Smokey Mountains, TN

I enjoy this kind of fishing so much that I apply the same principles in other states such as Colorado, Montana, California, Tennessee and Wyoming. Last year for instance I had a short photo job in Tennessee and planned a week long backpacking route in the Smokey mountains pursuing wild brook trout. I logged over 50 miles hiking up canyons, exited certain points, caught a hiking trail over to another canyon and did the same thing. I never ran into a soul except on some well traveled trails. The fishing and scenery was fantastic with the only problem being, dealing with black bears, in one area over night. 

Put them back


 

 

Lastly I always put the fish back I catch.  Sometimes Ill keep sunfish or bass and make them an evening meal. Most Southwest remote creeks are simply to sensitive to keep fish. When you find a stream that contains wild fish keep it a secrete. If you share the location on average each person will share it with seven other people and they will share it with seven more and......, well before you know it your little stream is fished out. The only reason these places still exist is because of their remoteness and not telling others.

 

 I hope I have answered future questions on this page. Travel safe and with someone when you go canyoneering fishing. Consider sending us a photo of a wild fish you caught in the future. Don't tell us where though.  

 

 

(newbottom)

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